Discovering the Pearl of the Danube
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is one of the most beautiful cities in Central Europe. It has repaired the devastation it suffered during the Second World War and has now rediscovered all its old beauty. Since the end of Soviet dominance Budapest has made up for lost time by becoming one of the world's liveliest cities.
And there's a river down the middle. And what a river - the Danube, the most romantic river in Europe since Johann Strauss wrote his Blue Danube waltz. The river long separated the cities of Buda, Óbuda and Pest but on 1 January 1873 they were combined to create Budapest. Eleven bridges link the two banks and the most beautiful is also the oldest. Guarded by stone lions that are as famous in Hungary as the horses on the Pont Alexandre III Bridge in Paris are in France, the Széchenyi lánchíd (the Széchenyi Chain Bridge - from the name of its builder) was completed in 1849. Yet this magnificent bridge and all the other bridges that followed it have not managed to reconcile the differences between the two sides of Hungary's capital, both of which retain their own special styles.
Buda, the historic bank
Buda, the old capital on the right bank, deliberately cultivates its glorious past. The old fiefdom of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy shows visitors places and surroundings to which time and its faithful companion history have added their patina. Take a walk through Buda, admiring its squares down little paved roads and the gothic, baroque and rococo facades of its centuries' old houses, churches and palaces. The Fisherman's Bastion gives a breath-taking view of the whole city and is a neo-mediaeval construction that seems to have stepped out of a fairy tale, with seven towers for the seven Magyar tribes who were the ancestors of modern Hungarians. A timeless funicular takes you to the foot of Buda Castle, the home of the kings of Hungary. The huge building was enriched and embellished for over five centuries before being ravaged by war and rebuilt during the peace that followed. It may have lost some of its youthful glow but it remains the jewel of the Pearl of the Danube. End your walk by climbing to the top of Mount Gellért. This is where, more than 200 metres above the river, the Austrians built their citadel to protect them against Magyar revolt, and where the Soviets, not without a certain sense of irony, erected their Statue of Liberty. It took half a century for it to deserve the name.
Pest, the vibrant bank
Pest, on the left bank of the Danube, is more modern, lively and less aristocratic than its neighbour. This is the part of the city to find art and nightlife, business and politics. It's where the opera, theatre and most of the city's museums are located, along with the big shops on Andrassy Avenue (the Hungarian equivalent of the Champs Elysées and over two kilometres long) and the Parliament, a huge building with almost 700 rooms on the banks of the Danube and a cupula almost 100 meters off the ground. Pest is also where the best restaurants are to be found, like Café Gerbeaud, a local institution whose teas and cakes were a favourite of Empress Sissi. But Belle Epoque and contemporary splendours stand side by side with far funkier successors: ruin pubs. Abandoned buildings have been transformed into ultra-cool bars with unusual, multiple, themes. Almost each room has its own decor and theme. Szimpla Kert was the first to open in 2002 and is now one of the three best bars in the world according to Lonely Planet.
After a crazy night in Budapest, what could be better than a bath to get over the excesses of the night before and the lack of sleep. Spas, along with goulash and tokay, are the big local speciality and have been for a long time. The Roman called the town Aquincum - the town of waters. Thanks to its over 150 hot and cold springs, Budapest has many baths where the locals and their guests go to take the waters, soak, or perhaps even swim a few lengths.
And as one good thing leads to another - not content with just offering you all the benefits of their hot, mineral-rich water (apparently very good for hangovers) the town's main spas are also beautifully decorated. Built under the Turkish occupation in the XVI century, the Rudás and Király baths have retained an oriental style. The Szécheny baths were built in the middle of the last century in the heart of the city forest and are one of Europe's biggest spas hidden behind the Art Nouveau and baroque walls of a huge palace. The local custom is to play chess while paddling around, whatever the colour of the sky or the temperature outside. But the most prestigious, luxurious and unforgettable baths are the Gellért baths on the top of the hill of the same name in Buda. These are a miracle blend of Ottoman and Art Nouveaux decor that bathe you in light.
Walk through the city forest - 120 hectares make this the lungs of Pest. Take metro line 1 to one of the oldest forests in Europe. Deliciously unusual. Go there to breathe the air, relax in the Szécheny baths, visit the zoo, browse the Csarnok flea markets, enjoy centuries' old roller coasters in the amusement park and visit Heroes Square and strange Vajdahunyad Castle.
Visit the Faust Wine Cellar - located under an old Dominican cloister dating back to the XIII century and classified as a historic monument by UNESCO, this is the most romantic place in which to discover Hungarian wines and palinka, an ancient liqueur that has become a national drink.
Go to the covered market - Gustave Eiffel in person supervised the construction of this huge market in the middle of Pest. Well worth a visit if only to take home a little bag of paprika to make authentic goulash.
Dine on the Danube - it may be kitsch but a dinner cruise on this famous river works every time. Music by Lizst, a local boy, local specialities, the lights of the Chain Bridge and the illuminated facade of Parliament are guaranteed to create a romantic tete-a-tete.
Visit the Great Synagogue of Budapest - this is the biggest in Europe and the second biggest in the world. It is a splendid example of the moorish style and is a memorial to the 600 000 victims of Nazism. Another memorial site is the Shoes on the edge of the Danube. Around sixty pairs of metal shoes are soldered to the banks of the Danube in memory of the execution of Jews during the war. Their executioners made them take off their shoes before killing them. Very moving.
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